Wednesday, 23 June 2010

In the eye of the beholder

Prince Charles' letter to the Prime Minister of Qatar, published this week, certainly captures its author's voice, veering at times into self-parody. In one faux-tentative passage, the Prince argues that traditional architecture is preferred "because it enhances all those qualities of neighbourliness, community, human-scale [sic], proportion and, dare I say it, 'old-fashioned' beauty."

The last word, underlined by hand in the letter, made me think of another man with a forceful personality, strong views on architecture, and a conviction that shallow functionalism in design can marginalise and undervalue beauty. Indeed, when undertaking a commission for the last government, this grandee complained that civil servants persistently tried to censor all mention of 'beauty' from his report.

I don't think either of them would thank me for the observation, but Prince Charles' fellow beauty-seeker is, of course, none other than Richard Rogers, the architect whose Chelsea Barracks scheme the Prince was seeking, successfully as it turned out, to derail.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Ecraser les bourgeois?

It is commonplace to contrast the social mix of London with the segregation of Paris. This analysis characterises (caricatures?) Paris as a doughnut city: the centre is homogenously bourgeois, while the immigrants and the poor are relegated to the concrete banlieues on the other side of the Peripherique.

London by contrast is held to be a city which switches from elegant townhouse to high-rise council housing in a matter of yards, as a result of the combined efforts of the Luftwaffe and post-war planning. There are richer and poorer areas, but few districts are devoid of either social housing or a middle class enclave.

But perhaps that's all starting to change. Central St Giles is a garish Renzo Piano development on one of London's most historically ominous sites. The super dense development may tip its hat to the crowded tenements that once dominated, but there the resemblance ends. While 53 flats have been allocated to Circle Anglia for social rental and intermediate buy-rent, the others are apparently being marketed in the Far East, with prices starting at £500,000 for a studio, and £1 million for a two-bed flat.

What's missing is the middle - the flats that might be within the financial grasp of people on an average, or even above-average but not astronomical, salary. Central London's property market appears to have reached a condition where only the super-rich and key workers (the 21st Century's 'deserving poor'?) can afford to get their foot on the ladder. This is a 'mixed community', true, but a very odd one: just how will this blend of jetsetters, jobseekers and low-paid workers actually rub along?

Perhaps the developers (Legal and General, and Mitsubishi) are agitators, working under deep cover to foment revolution, by laying bare the inequities in society. Or perhaps it's just another of the bizarre outcomes of London's soaring land values, persistent high-end demand, and reliance on developers to provide public goods.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The illiteracy of uses

Long ago, before Brick Lane became internationally-renowned home of the ironic haircut, I attended a meeting between the Mayor of London and protestors from the Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) pressure group. With the protestors, who were seeking to preserve the former wholesale market on the edge of the City of London, was florid architect Will Alsop.

They had asked Will along, they said, to demonstrate how new commercial development could co-exist with, rather than destroying, the courtyard of 19th and 20th Century buildings, by then enclosing an 'alternative' market, selling everything from vintage clothing, to dream-catchers, to decommissioned pub signs. With a straight face, Alsop unfurled his plans. Over the nondescript market buildings towered a monstrous blob on stilts. One of the bien-pensant SMUTters coughed nervously, and explained that this proposal wasn't necessarily what they were actually proposing.

Straight face aside, I wondered whether Alsop was making a wry comment about the confusion of buildings and uses in the UK planning system. What the SMUTters wanted to preserve, I sensed, was not so much the decent but nondescript market buildings, but the marginal market uses that they accommodated, a messy bulwark against bland City expansionism.

But our planning system's 'use classes' are a blunt instrument: retail is retail, and drinking establishments are drinking establishments. Planners cannot discriminate, so protestors are forced to rely on heritage arguments, in order to defend the unique and particular against the homogenous and generic. They make claims for buildings, when what they are actually talking about is character - fleeting, intangible and easly destroyed. Spitalfields Market is now redeveloped (Smithfield is the new front); while many of the market buildings were saved, and a few token market stalls remains, they feel as forlorn and denatured as in a suburban megamall.

Reading this week about the Parisian proposal to designate streets and shops for specific uses (eg, as bookshops, bakeries, butchers or tabacs), I started to wonder we could imitate the initiative. Perhaps individual shop units could be designated for 'slightly funky coffee shop not owned by Seattle-based leviathans', 'old-fashioned hardware store where you can buy nails by weight in paper bags' or 'butchers with organic meats and straw boaters'.

This type of positive discrimination is what the great estates can do; it's what Howard de Walden have sought to do (with some sucess) in Marylebone High Street. But this power seems unlikely to be granted to town halls even in our brave new world. It may be irreproachably conservative, and trendily localist, but it would be a heretical denial of free market ideology.